Commentary

The perils of drafting WRs early

As the Lions and other teams know, position carries great risk in first round

Originally Published: April 25, 2011
By John McTigue | ESPN Stats & Information

No position exemplifies the risk-reward scenario of the NFL draft more than quarterback.

Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers. Jake Long instead of Matt Ryan. JaMarcus Russell in 2007, Sam Bradford in 2010. Although the risk is always there when selecting a quarterback in the first round, the high reward of potentially finding a franchise signal-caller seems to be well worth it.

Each position on the field comes with its own risk-reward scenario. Tight ends, for example, have proved to be reliable and durable first-round picks. All 14 selected in the first round since 2001 were still active in 2010. Linebackers have been durable selections also, as have been defensive backs.

Other positions, when drafted in the first round, bring greater risk, which can be defined by taking several factors into account.

Picks of positions that consistently underperform, miss time and see shortened careers should then be considered risky. One position in particular has proved to be the riskiest of all first-round choices.

If your team is considering drafting A.J. Green or Julio Jones, you might want to start worrying. And if that's not enough, remember that the Detroit Lions spent four top-10 picks between 2003 and 2007 on wide receivers and only one of those picks is still with the team.

The NFL has become a more pass-happy league. In 2008, 57.2 percent of NFL plays were called passes and 45.7 percent utilized three or more wide receivers. In 2010, 59.0 percent of plays were called passes and 48.2 percent of plays utilized at least three wideouts.

The increase in passing and wide receiver usage has naturally led to an increase in wide receivers selected in the first round. From 2001 to 2010, wide receivers were the second-most drafted players in the first round, trailing only defensive backs (both corners and safeties).

The 40 first-round picks since 2001 have combined to play 199 seasons in the NFL. Only 41 of those 199 seasons (20.6 percent) saw the receiver eclipse 1,000 receiving yards. Only 17 of the 40 receivers have registered a 1,000-yard season and just nine have done it more than once.

Even if you were to ignore their rookie seasons to account for an NFL learning curve, you'd have 159 seasons and 40 1,000-yard seasons (25.2 percent). Michael Clayton was the only receiver of the group with a 1,000-yard season his rookie year and he never had more than 484 in a season after that.

Compiling the stats from the cumulative 199 seasons for all 40 first-round receivers, the average season hasn't been up to the standards of the top receivers in the league.

Last season alone, 47 wideouts had 48 receptions, 45 had 653 receiving yards and 52 caught four or more touchdown passes.

Go back 20 years and first-round receivers have averaged 13.6 games, 47.5 receptions, 665.8 yards and 4.2 touchdowns per season. That list even includes Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt, three of the top 10 in career receiving yards.

Other pieces of the puzzle when determining risk are durability and longevity.

No other position drafted since 2001 has seen a higher percentage of players inactive in 2010. Eleven of the 40 first-round receivers did not play in a game last season, meaning 72.5 percent of all first-round receivers played. Defensive backs (79.3 percent) were the only other position to dip below 80 percent.

[+] EnlargeCharles Rogers
Ron Schwane/US PresswireCharles Rogers, the Lions' first-round pick in 2003, was out of the NFL by 2006.

Those 11 wide receivers averaged 5.1 seasons in their careers. Five of those receivers played their last games in or prior to 2006. Only two other offensive players drafted in 2001 or later (running back William Green and tackle Kenyatta Walker) were out by 2006.

Calvin Johnson is the only survivor of the Lions' infamous string of first-round receivers. What happened in Detroit may have been comical, but it exemplified the perils of drafting a wideout in the first round.

Before picking Johnson in 2007, the Lions used those top-10 picks on Charles Rogers (2003), Roy Williams (2004) and Mike Williams (2005). Rogers and Johnson represent the extreme: Rogers is one of the 11 wide receivers picked in the first round since 2001 already out of the NFL and Johnson is one of the nine receivers to post multiple 1,000-yard seasons. Johnson is also one of the eight to make an AP All-Pro team and a Pro Bowl.

Since 2001, there has been a one-in-four chance a receiver would be out of the NFL within five years (Rogers). There is also a one-in-four chance to draft an elite talent (Johnson). Both Mike and Roy Williams represent the other guys -- wild cards, if you will.

Mike Williams joined Rogers as a bust before reviving his career and becoming a serviceable receiver with the Seahawks (751 yards in 2010, three 100-yard games). Roy Williams started his career off strong, picking up 1,310 receiving yards in his third season. Since then, he has been traded to the Cowboys and hasn't topped 900 yards in a season.

With teams passing more and using more three-wide receiver sets, the perception has become that drafting a first-round talent at wide receiver is a necessity. However, despite the increase in pass plays and three-wide receiver formations, wide receivers haven't been targeted more.

Pass-catching tight ends and running backs are still just as important in offenses. As teams use more platoons at running back and as tight ends become more athletic, that is not likely to change.

The sheer volume of wide receivers in the draft gives teams plenty of opportunities to get a high-caliber player. On a per game basis, first-round receivers since 2001 have averaged 3.4 receptions, 48.0 yards and 0.3 touchdowns. Receivers drafted in the second round or later have averaged 2.1 receptions, 27.5 yards and 0.2 touchdowns per game. (Those numbers were compiled from the 235 wide receivers who played at least one game.)

When thinking of the difference between a first-round receiver and a second-round-or-later receiver, one 20-yard catch per game probably isn't what comes to mind, but players like Greg Jennings, Chad Ochocinco, Vincent Jackson, Anquan Boldin, Brandon Marshall and Mike Wallace (among others) have helped close that gap.

A.J. Green and Julio Jones are the only two wide receivers projected to go in the first round this month, according to both Todd McShay's and Mel Kiper's most recent mock drafts. Both could translate to 1,000-yard talents, but statistically speaking, each has only a one-in-four shot to be a real difference maker.